Review: The Queen of Spades

Directed by Thorold Dickinson and written by Rodney Ackland and Arthur Boys, based on the short story by Alexander Pushkin. An army officer becomes obsessed with learning the secret to a card game which an elderly countess sold her soul for years earlier. Starring: Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans, Yvonne Mitchell, Ronald Howard, Mary Jerrold, Anthony Dawson, Miles Malleson and Michael Medwin.

It’s not often you come across a British film made in the 1940s that’s set in Russia, which already sets The Queen of Spades apart from the crowd. It’s one of several ways that it feels different to other films of the era, the next being its tone living in an unusual, mysterious and supernaturally tinged edge. It creates a captivating atmosphere, diving into whether fate can be twisted in your favour, playing with gambling and perhaps a touch of black magic. It’s engaging but at the same time the plot feels quite thin, which isn’t entirely surprising stretching a short story to a feature. At the same time, the direction it heads in calls out for a creepy, horror-styled tone and it never quite gets there. It hints at wanting to go down that rabbit hole but doesn’t take the risk, which is to be expected for a period where horror was not in the limelight but it’s a shame to waste the potential.

However, it does capture that feel within its decadence, the costumes and settings are hugely extravagant and endlessly entertaining to watch. There’s something to be said of the opulence of the design of classic cinema that we don’t often get to see today, and somehow The Queen of Spades feels on a large scale and yet intimate. The restoration work only highlights that further, it’s imposing and gets a good grasp on that mystery with a hint of danger and dark roads to come. Thorold Dickinson’s direction brings through a slowly growing intensity and tension, again it feels primed for something more twisted or absurd but it’s solid work all around.

More than well aided by Anton Walbrook’s portrayal of a fracturing mind, a man so set on success that he loses all sight outside of it, an age old story. Walbrook perfectly captures the deterioration to Herman, starting out on the precipice but has fallen deep into the darkness by the time the credits roll. There’s then a superb ensemble beside him, beginning with Yvonne Mitchell evoking the classic naivety that comes with privilege but at the same time brings a strength and determination to her character. Edith Evans as The Old Countess gives us an element of unpredictability, stubbornness and secrecy, in some ways it’s very familiar and in others it’s akin to a performance you’d find alongside Vincent Price or Bela Lugosi in their prime. As a whole it has the typically melodramatic touch that’s so enjoyable to watch from classic cinema.

The Queen of Spades is an engaging tale of the unravelling road to success. Anton Walbrook leads the way with a strong performance of a broken man. It’s an unusual story in the landscape of 1940’s cinema which is an unexpected delight. It has a wonderful decadence to its design and costumes but the only thing that lets it down is a thin plot and skirting along the side-lines of creepy. It feels as though it had the potential to go further and lean into the horror but it holds back.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½ | 7/10

New 4K restoration will be available on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital from 23 January

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